Artwork by Aviva Yunger
February 13-March 13, 2005
Bergen County Y
605 Pascack Road, Washington, NJ
The first question a viewer ought to pose regarding any work of art that includes text is: if we strip you of your text, are you significantly changed? And if the change is simply a superficial, external one, do we truly need that text? In the visual arts, the onus lies upon any embedded text to justify itself, just as it lies on any images that find their way into literary texts.
Texts have a habit of attaching themselves to the host and sucking the aesthetic life out of it. The choice technique of extraction involves “narrative.” Narrative refers to the story of the painting. Painters like Norman Rockwell, Edward Hopper and Frederic Remington really engage in illustration or storytelling and, though their work hardly includes significant text portions, their work is much more about a text than about forms. In specific, Remington’s paintings find themselves fascinated far more by the notion of horses than by particular browns, reds, diagonals and curves; in fact, he sees the horse as coincidentally featuring forms and colors and lines as opposed to the opposite model which offers a far more promising aesthetic.
Much Judaica suffers the same condition. If the abstract watercolor painting contains “Next Year in Jerusalem” stenciled in handsome, round calligraphy across the bottom, its aesthetic sins are forgiven and it magically transforms into Judaica before the viewer’s very eyes, and the viewer is expected to overlook poor craftsmanship. The same holds for many Menorahs and Kiddush cups. All too often, the forms are not organic and aesthetically correct, because viewers let them cover up their technique with the literalness of the subject matter.
And yet, this discussion somehow seems to apply to Judaica, but not “Kabbalica”. By “Kabbalica” I refer to those pieces that are ritual objects, but involve Kabbalah instead of Jewish narratives. Aviva Yunger’s work fits in this category, and the pieces seem to use text in such a central role that their visual currency is more a synthesis of image and text, almost like a graphic novel. They seem to resist any of the previous nomenclature, precisely because they exhibit a different sense of textuality. Where text serves as a nametag in Judaica that refers to the image, in Kabbalica, the text is more inherent.
Viewers delight in successfully identifying Judaica – that is a mezuzah, this is a challah tray – and the text confirms the viewers original estimation – yes, this is a mezuzah because it contains G-d’s Name and the Shema. This literal game of “pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey” works for Judaica in the utilitarian sense, but it is not high art. Kabbalica, on the other hand, uses text as image and image as text. A letter yod carries geometric implications: it is a point without coordinates and thus suggests certain notions of transcendent knowledge, while the letters of the word sukkah – samech, kaf, heh – suggest the architectural structure of the sukka’s framework (two and a half walls, three walls or four walls). The form follows the content.
Yunger’s work reflects this notion of useful text that creates rather than refers. Take the mixed media collage “The Hand of G-d” (2002). This collage on hand-made paper contains a sliced composition with red and green. The red is bright, almost a Crayola primary red, while the green has a lot of brown and yellow in it, and thus has a muddy feel to it. A hamsa (hand) floats in the middle of the composition, and it looks as if it could double as a flying dove, if needed.
The names of the 12 tribes and corresponding stones adorn the hand, and the picture has an overall illustrative quality to it with the hamsa floating in the middle, rarely interacting with the paper’s boundaries. Yunger says she created this image because her seven-year-old daughter once said to her, “Mommy, I think that the hand of G-d would be beautiful on this paper.”
This raises several questions about inspiration and about image making. Firstly, Yunger aims to teach with her art. She uses her Kabbalistic art to educate her audience about energies, about meaning, and about spiritual universes. This type of art carries a 19th century Romantic notion of the artist conveying personalized messages. Where the Classicists and the neo-Classicists tried to divorce themselves from their work – an aesthetic form of journalistic objectivity or a camera lens – the Romantics felt that they wanted to convey precisely those personal feelings that they held as individuals. This creates advantages and disadvantages. Many viewers (probably many Ashkenazi viewers) see potential heresy in a Kabbalistic vocabulary. How dare she try to portray G-d’s hand, many will say.
When Yunger speaks of seeing Hebrew letters in her dreams and capturing them on paper, she adopts a vocabulary that is foreign to many viewers. The disadvantage is tremendous potential for alienation; the advantage is the very same potential for education.
Ana Bechoach has a black magic feel to it, almost like the artist scratching into the black surface to reveal buried colors beneath. The impasto application of the materials recalls that of Georges Rouault, and the yellow substance surrounding the words has a waxy feel to it. The first letter of each word is enlarged to reveal the aleph-bet structure of the poem. To Yunger, “The prayer consists of seven sentences which correspond to the seven levels of spirituality. By reciting Ana Bechoach, one connects with the 42 encoded Names of G-d.”
Situated somewhat more vertically than the others, Keriat Shema shows a hamsa in a form that looks human. The border involves intricate flowery yellow detail, lending the image an Indian or Persian miniature quality with the inside space rendered a deep maroon. The text of Shema surrounds the hamsa and illustrates Yunger’s notion that, “Each word of the Shema corresponds to one of the organs of the human body,” Yunger literally maps out the text as a body.
It is Connection that carries the exhibits title. This image contains a wide variety of textures that, upon further inspection, turn out to be letters, candles and gravestones. Yunger reveals that the image features Hanukkah candles, Shabbos candles and the gravesite of sages. “This piece is a visual reminder of some simple physical actions that are available to us; its intent is to assist us in connecting or tapping into higher energy levels,” Yunger says.
Ultimately, it appears that the vertical lines in Connection are really what Yunger is talking about. The internal structures – whether spiritual, mystical, organic – tie together seemingly disparate elements. Yunger’s lines draw together text and image, icon and form, in a grand machine that aims at producing an aesthetic, as well as an educational experience. Most interestingly, though, it demands a reevaluation of our vocabulary with which to engage text and image.
Moreover, if we are to allow the images to speak, we must allow for an occasionally blurry boundary in which images sometimes slip into text and text slips into image, and where aesthetics, spirituality and education are sometimes indistinguishable from one another.
Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the “Yeshiva University Commentator”. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on Aviva Yunger, visit http://avivayunger.com/.